March 6, 2009

U of C gifts up despite economic downturn

The University's increased attention to alumni relations has stimulated donations in the face of a national decline in fundraising for higher education. While the University's endowment has dropped 30 percent, the administration expects donations for the 2009 fiscal year to set records, in part due to the $300 million donation of David Booth, the investor alumnus for whom the University's business school is now named.

This pattern of growth for 2009 comes on the heels of a record $376 million in donations for fiscal year 2008, said Vice President for Alumni Relations and Development Ronald Schiller. "The University has been on a very strong growth trajectory in fundraising, and what we're seeing this year is a continuation of that growth," he said.

In recent years, the University has increased staff working in alumni relations, which helped boost the University's donor base. Just a few years ago, only twenty staff members worked in alumni relations University-wide; that number will have doubled by the end of 2009.

"Our fundraising results have been growing at a much faster rate than that of our peers, and to some degree that's because the University had not made an investment in alumni relations and development to the degree that our peers had before," Schiller said.

The economic downturn has come at an awkward moment for fundraisers at some universities, according to institutional development experts. A large percentage of donors wait until the end of the calendar year to give, looking for tax deductions. The late 2008 recession put a dent in what is normally a surge of giving.

According to a report released by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), donations to colleges and universities across the country also reached all-time highs in the 2008 fiscal year, with gifts totaling $31.6 billion, but fundraising difficulties brought about by the weakened economy may affect donations for the 2009 fiscal year. Survey director Ann Kaplan found that many institutions had "hit a wall" in fundraising in the middle of the fiscal year.

While an increased pool of donors has so far kept donation numbers up for the University, donors aren't giving as much. Schiller said that some larger donors, who normally might pledge multiple year donations, have begun making smaller one-time pledges. "Some of these larger donors will make an annual commitment, they'll say 'well I know how much I can give you now so I'll give you that and then let's talk again next year.'"

The CAE survey noted that, at many universities, multiyear pledges have been renegotiated to give contributors more time to complete them. Only a couple of University of Chicago donors have asked for such extensions, according to Schiller. However, as the recession draws on, this number might increase.

The effects of a worsening economy have been felt equally among smaller and larger donors to the university, says Schiller. "There are some donors who would typically give you 100 dollars who are finding that they don't have the capacity to do that right now, and there are donors who would give you a million dollars who don't have the capacity to do that. That's holding true across the whole spectrum."

The CAE report predicts a nationwide decline in donations through 2010 before rebounding. However, the University is not currently changing its fundraising plans due to the dark economic outlook, according to Schiller. This year's goal is set at an unusually high minimum of $538 million, in large part because of the Booth gift. Schiller says next year's trajectory won't be marked out until the summer. "A new goal won't be set until we have a much clearer picture of the economic environment for next year," he said.